Most of the year I work as a physician in a town about 90 miles to the west of the Park….. My days are patients, one after another, until the best hours of a given week are extinguished…… traded for money. But in August each year, I watch my email to look for a message from Andris Vezis, the fire manager for the North Cascades National Park. The NOCA acronym comes from the National Park Service abbreviation for the park NO…rth CA…scades “Andris knows me from a couple of assignments he gave me at Sourdough Mountain Lookout. In 2007 though, he emailed me about working up on Desolation Peak. The Park Service abbreviates it “Deso”. The summer was heating up and the lightning wouldn’t be far behind.
When it popped up on my screen at the office one day– I was in the midst of the medical urgencies swirling around me, and was astonished to actually see the request appear. I reread it to see if it truly said what I thought it said. Then I closed down the email program and opened it back up again and see if it was still there…….following that I saw a couple of patients and came back to check if it was still there. It was something I had waited so long to see that I was worried that I might be imagining the message…….that the never-ending stream of patients, phone calls & medical records had pixelated me.
But it persisted …. and the invitation began to trigger a flood of remembered smells and feel of other old wood lookouts ……weathered grey or green with above timberline views, pristine clear snow melt water lying at the lower edges of snowbanks….. the chill after sundown at those altitudes, the buzz of flies ……the staccato of the radio……my memory flooding my consciousness with excitement.
When I next sat down to dictate a series of patient notes, another part of me began the planning process….is there snow left for water? Has someone packed the cistern to the north of the LO with snow or are there “Cubies” ( 5 gallon plastic bladders of water held in stout cardboard boxes shaped like a cube ) that have been dropped by helicopter ?
If so, has someone like Jerry been up and put them inside the lookout? Or are they still outside where the marmots will certainly have gotten into the them, chewing on the cardboard? Is there propane left in the tank? ……Are the heavy shutters up and braced with the struts? How soon do I need to leave? What food will I take? How many days are likely? What gear to take? What treats? What music for the iPod? I’ve got to remember putting on some of those old recordings of Kerouac doing his readings to play for visitors…
Which camera? Will I be able to afford the weight of a paperback book? Which friend might come to visit and bring chocolate? Will my son Adley be able to come with supplemental supplies again?
So after pondering this all quickly ……I tell Becky, my receptionist, to begin canceling patients. I do a quick internet check of the Bellingham REI store times and call my wife. In my lingo, its “rock and roll” time. Then I carefully email Andris back: “ Yes, I would be happy to come. When precisely should I be at the Fire Office in Marblemount? Am I hiking up or are they giving me a heli ride”? The latter would mean I can take not more stuff, but a little heavier stuff, in my backpack.
Yippie Yi Coyote !!!
Andris ordinarily gives you 2 days notice for a relief job like mine. Busy days. Once you are up there, there is no recourse, and no store for 32 miles. But all that’s irrelevant anyway because you can’t leave your LO, you are on duty……paid for 8 hours but working 24.
I can get messages out about needing certain items (like the time I forgot my journal) with hikers who are headed back to civilization. They will usually agree to phone my wife when they get a chance. But she would still need to find someone who is willing to come…… to hike up…. pretty unlikely event, except for Adley. Regrettably my wife herself has never hiked in to any of my lookout assignments.
Cellphones do not work at Desolation since there is no tower within sight. The park’s handheld radio system works well via the radio repeater on the top of Ruby Mountain to the south—- but its only for official business, which does not generally include a request for toothpaste.
I can’t carry enough food in my pack for 10 days to really satisfy my hunger…. only enough to keep it at bay. Neither the weight nor the volume permits it. Jack was outfitted at the start of the summer with mule pack in. But for a relief lookout like me, it’s just what I can carry. Most of my pack space is taken